Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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The Avatar State
Your uncle Iroh is a traitor, and your brother Zuko is a failure. I have a task for you.The last scene of the season 1 finale is of the Firelord's throne room. Ozai speaks the page quote, and we get a facial shot of who he's talking to. It's a young woman, the sister that Zuko was talking about earlier in the episode. The first episode of the second season begins with a dream sequence. We see Aang watching himself going through most of the times he's gotten all glowy over the last season. And the glowy Aang is attacking the normal Aang who's watching this. SYMBOLISM! Aang wakes up on a Northern Water Tribe ship and goes on deck, followed by Katara. Aang talks about his nightmares. This is the first time we hear the term "The Avatar State," which is now the proper name for the glowy thing he does. Aang is apparently afraid of the Avatar State, because he's not in control when it happens. In the morning, Pakku gives the Gaang gifts. For Katara, she gets a Plot Device: spirit water that has "special properties." For Aang, he gets a bunch of waterbending scrolls, though I'm not sure why, since "Master" Katara will always be there to teach him whatever he wants. Sokka of course, gets nothing. Pakku sends them off on Appa to go to Omasu, where Aang can start his earthbending training with King Bumi. Well, since Bumi is an old man like Pakku, not an unfettered child who could travel with the Avatar, what do you suppose the chances of that working out are? Anyway, we cut to Iroh and Zuko. Iroh's getting a back massage, but Zuko is grouchy. Today is apparently the three year anniversary of his banishment. This is where we get the first change in Zuko, when he talks about wanting his father not to think that he's worthless.
—Firelord Ozai, unleashing his greatest weapon.
Now we cut to something new: a Fire Nation ship, that is tall and ornately decorated, rather unlike Zuko's plain steel ship. We see the crew assembled on deck, bowing before a woman. The same woman we saw at the end of season 1. She exposits to the assembled crew that they're here to capture Iroh and Zuko. This isn't just exposition though, as she says she understands that they may feel conflicted about attacking members of the royal family, but she says that she will take them down if they hesitate. After the assembly is dismissed, the ship's captain approaches. We get a rank for this woman instead of a name: Princess, though we knew that since the season 1 finale established her as Zuko's sister. He says that the tides won't allow them to pull into port presently. The Princess then subtly hints that if he doesn't pull the ship into port immediately, she will have him cast into the water for the tides to crash against the rocky shore. The captain visibly gulps and then scurries off. As great as this character establishment is, there's one problem. Namely, that the captain is a naval captain, and the Princess is... not. There's no reason why they can't pull in a few hours later. Or at least, not a reason provided by the episode. Her actions here seem to show her to be as impulsive as Zuko. And if I were that captain, I might have considered crashing the ship on purpose to show where REMFs like this Princess can stick it. Granted, if the crash didn't kill me, she likely would have. So there's that. Cut to the Gaang arriving at an Earth Kingdom outpost, where they will be getting an escort to Omashu. The leader, General Fong, welcomes them and strokes their ego over their recent victory. There's a reason for this. At a later meeting General Fong suggests that, after his display at the North Pole, Aang is ready to face the Firelord and end the war. Aang disagrees, saying he can only do that in the Avatar State, and he doesn't know how to get in or out of that. When Fong suggests they spend some time learning how to trigger it, Katara says that this is wrong. Knowing who wears the pants in this relationship, Fong asks to speak with Aang in private. There, he shows Aang the infirmary, where they treat the soldiers who fight the war. He says that people are dying, the war goes on while Aang is mastering the elements. Seeing this, Aang agrees. We cut back to the Princess. In another bit of character establishment, she does a firebending move that releases, not fire, but lightning. Her two elderly advisers (who's names we never learn until the second-to-last-episode of the entire series) say that it was almost perfect, save for a hair that fell into her face while doing the move. The Princess proclaims that this isn't good enough, and does it perfectly this time. Note the differences between this scene and Zuko's training in the pilot. In Zuko's scene, Iroh is constantly admonishing him for his impatience and failure to master the basics of firebending. Whereas she is shown throwing lightning, something not seen before, something that obviously isn't basic, and something that is clearly awesome. And the closest to admonishment she gets is someone noting that a single lock of hair fell slightly in her face. And she is the one who says it's not good enough. Zuko's scene shows him to be impatient and stubborn, not exactly frightening traits. she's scene shows her to be a perfectionist and badass. We cut to Aang telling Katara that he's going to work with General Fong to try to trigger the Avatar State. Katara is against it, while Sokka is perfectly happy with it. She says that he should master the elements the right way, with study and discipline (as though Aang has ever had those traits). Aang points out the practical facts. Her non-argument thwarted, she naturally storms out. What happens next are a series of attempts to trigger the Avatar State, most of them ridiculous. They go from a special tea to trying to scare Aang into it to a silly ritual that involves throwing mud on him. Naturally, none of it works, though Fong becomes increasingly insistent as they continue to fail. Meanwhile, cut to something that matters. Zuko and Iroh enter a room arguing. Then *sting*: there's the Princess, waiting for them. She's initially friendly, but Zuko isn't. Especially when she calls him the nickname Zu-Zu. This scene establishes that the Princess is a very good liar. She claims that Ozai has heard of plots to overthrow him. She says that family are the only people that can be trusted, and that Ozai regrets banishing him. She's here to bring them home. Zuko is dumbstruck, but she plays the part perfectly, being impatient at having to play messenger. She says that she'll come back the next day to pick them up. Cut to Katara and Aang arguing. Katara says that seeing Aang in the Avatar State, in that much rage, is hard for those who care about him. Damn you, second season writing! Stop making me not hate Katara! Go back to that insipid nonsense about Aang having to do things one way no matter what; stop making her position sympathetic, dammit! Aang appreciates her position, but says that he has to try this. She says that she can't watch them do it anymore and walks away. Cut to Zuko and Iroh arguing. And now, finally we get a name for the Princess. A name that strikes terror and dread into the hearts of heroes and demands respect from all that hear it: Azula. Iroh is very suspicious of Azula's offer, not having known his brother to regret anything. Zuko of course wants this too badly to think about it (which is why Azula made the offer), so instead he yells at Iroh and storms off. Aang has another nightmare about the Avatar State. He decides not to continue trying to trigger it, and Sokka sleepily agrees. In the morning, Zuko heads to see Azula, and Iroh comes along with him, saying that family sticks together. Back in the Earth Kingdom base, Aang explains that they won't be able to trigger the Avatar State on purpose, since it will only work when he's in genuine danger. The General agrees, then performs the first ever (but not last) Earthbender Footplant and Asskick: he hurls his stone desk into Aang, knocking him out a window into the courtyard. He then orders his men to attack the Avatar. Aang does his usual dodging schtick, and it works for a while.
Back at the port, Azula warmly welcomes her brother and uncle. Man, she is a good liar. As the pair are walking up the ramp, with Iroh warily eyeing the soldiers all around them, the captain accidentally spills the plan, saying that they are taking "the prisoners" home. The captain's body was never found. Or maybe his head was set at a crossroads, as a warning to others. We never see him again, so we can assume he's dead. Because if looks alone could firebend, the one Azula shot him would have immolated him on the spot. Iroh starts taking out the guards while Zuko goes after his sister. He yells that she lied to him, but she points out that she's done that a lot before. And from what we see from flashbacks later on, Zuko should have remembered that. Meanwhile, Katara and Sokka try to help out Aang. The General uses this as an opportunity; he says that while Aang can keep dodging, Katara can't. His men surround her. When she tries to waterbend at him, he uses some sandbending to trap the water as mud, then starts having the ground pull her down. Aang tries to stop him, but he's too strong for Aang's attacks. Aang eventually resorts to begging him to release Katara, but to no avail. Fong eventually pulls her fully into the ground, where she can't breath. Naturally, this triggers the Avatar State.
Um, General Fong, I don't think you thought this plan all the way through. Pissing off a guy as a means of giving him ultimate power was probably not wise. Avatar State Aang starts wrecking everything. Fong pulls Katara out of the ground, probably expecting that to stop him. It doesn't. Back to Zuko. He starts trying to melee against Azula with fire-knives. I have no idea why he isn't firebending at range; that's where firebenders have their strength, after all. Oh wait, that's right, he's jobbing out. Azula isn't even really fighting him here; she's just dodging and blocking everything he does, making him look as foolish as Aang does. She eventually knocks him down with some firebending. Naturally, this is blue fire, because Azula has to be special at everything. When she prepares to Avada Kedavra him with some lightning, Iroh suddenly appears, grabs her fingers, and channels the lightning she was about to throw into the cliffside. He then throws her off the ship, and the pair make good their escape. Aang is still in the Avatar State, standing in the wreckage of the base. Suddenly, Roku appears and drags him off to the clouds to have a chat. Um, did none of the writers watch the first half of season 1? That all-important episode where they had to go to a certain place at a certain time to have a talk with Roku? Did I imagine that episode? Anyway, Roku explains the whole Avatar State thing. Apparently, it is a merging of all of the past Avatars into the body of the current one, allowing the Avatar to access all of their powers at once. However, Roku says that if the Avatar is killed while in the Avatar State, then the Avatar will be killed permanently. No more reincarnation. Let's talk a bit about narrative law. You don't make a rule like this unless you intend to use it. There's no point in making this rule unless one of two things is going to happen: Aang is going to be threatened with death while in the Avatar State, or Aang is going to actually die while in the Avatar State. Unless one of these things happens, there is no point in establishing such a rule. I'll leave it to you to figure out where things go from here. Anyway, when Aang comes out of the Avatar State, General Fong is still perfectly happy with everything. Even though his whole base is wrecked and who knows how many people are dead or dying. When Fong starts planning how they're going to get him to Ozai and trigger the Avatar State there, Sokka promptly knocks him out. And his soldiers are perfectly find with this. The Gaang then departs, firmly convinced that Katara is always right. One last scene with Iroh and Zuko. Once they get far enough away, Zuko pulls out a knife, and I thought he was going to commit seppuku or something. Instead he cuts off his topknot, and Iroh does the same. Why? I have no idea; they could have just removed the ribbon and pins holding their topknots together to achieve the same effect. This is a pretty good episode. The two halves of the episode do not initially seem to have anything to do with one another, but in light of future events, they have everything to do with one another. Azula is awesome as always and is well established in this episode. One thing I might have done differently is to not have that part in the beginning of Azula's introduction, where she states that they're going to capture Zuko and Iroh. Because none of the other scenes reveal that. If you cut that, then you lose all that dramatic tension with Zuko thinking he's going home, and instead you have Iroh coming off as being seemingly needlessly distrustful. It also allows Azula to have an apparently sudden personality shift as you realize her entire story was a fabrication. In the Aang storyline, we have a better version of The Northern Air Temple. In that episode, there was a lot of non-conflict between two sides that both had legitimate arguments that were respectful to each other. In this episode, we have General Fong's side, where he's trying to end the war as quickly as possible for his people. And we have Katara's side, who's genuinely worried about the effects that all this might have on Aang. And even when Fong jumps off the slippery slope, it isn't so much a jump as a gentile leap. It may be extreme, but we'll see how you act when you've been fighting a war for several decades, watching good men and women die, then a potential way to end the war falls into your lap. Fong's position is ultimately shown to be wrong, but that's primarily because the Avatar State is so uncontrollable. Again, we are revisiting the theme of the needs of Roku's clock and Aang's well-being. Ultimately, the reason the Aang half of this episode exists is to plug a gigantic plot hole that the resolution of season 1 left. Fong is essentially the audience: "If he can do what he did at the North Pole, why not just kill Firelord Ozai right now?" Now we have our answer.
The captain's body was never found. Or maybe his head was set at a crossroads, as a warning to others. We never see him again, so we can assume he's dead. Because if looks alone could firebend, the one Azula shot him would have immolated him on the spot. I heard that on that night, on that very Fire Nation port, there was a gigantic flash of lighting and fire, appearing for a second. When the people came there, there was nothing but a blackened mark in the earth that looked vaguely like the outline of a skeleton. For generations to come, people swore on certain days, they could hear a soft, drawn out scream of agony, as if death came to somebody so fast and ferociously that their suffering and horror lingered on the world of the living as a testament to the sheer rage and power that wiped them from the earth.
This episode started off season 2 great, and also established a higher quality of storytelling in the process. I thought it did a great job of kicking things off, showing extra character development, establishing a new threat, and explaining things, all in one.
About the top-knot cutting; I always understood it as the two of them cutting ties to the Fire Nation. Of course Zuko still wants Ozai to accept him, but at least for the time being he's on the run, so... you know. What with Ozai declaring him a failure and Iroh a traitor.
Look up topknots in ancient Japan. It's a high-grade status symbol, signifying that you are a Very Important Person due to your Undying Loyalty to a Very, Very Important Person. Chopping it off is about one quarter-inch away from using that knife to slit his stomach open. The writers did their best to convey this - despairing faces, shimmering knife, sad music as those two little locks of hair are swept down the river - but it's really damned hard for a Westerner. It's kind of like a fifty-year career military officer burning his dress uniform, his combat decorations, and his dogtags - I Am No Longer An Important Person, And I Do Not Believe That I Will Ever Be Important Again.
It is especially important, since it implies Zuko is over honor, the one thing that has kept him going.
This is where your guide started to descend into pure nitpicking for me.
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